Renowned Choreographer Shares Perspective on Hip-Hop

Dressed in plaid wool “knickerbocker” pants sewn by his mother, eight-year old Rennie Harris headed to a neighborhood party hosted by a girl in his class. With a small crush on the girl lingering in his heart, Harris joined in on a line dance, hoping to impress.

“I heard someone say, ‘Oh, he’s a good dancer,’ and that made me dance more. I just went off, and, of course, this was at the girl’s party, and she was there, so I was going extra. In retrospect, there was some sort of value to being a good dancer, and throughout time, that sort of thing continued on,” said Harris.

On Wednesday, Harris, now the choreographer of Rennie Harris Puremovement, visited campus with the legendary hip-hop dance company. Puremovement performed in Tang Theater on Wednesday night and hosted a Q&A session with their company members following the performance.

Earlier in the day, Harris visited classes and engaged with students and faculty at a Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) open house.

During his CAMD visit, Harris described the different phases in his illustrious career.

“I came into choreography by happenstance. It was a complete accident. Someone called me and said, ‘I’m going to give you $15,000 to make your own work. I toured with the first ever rap tour to cross this nation with Run DMC, Fat Boys, with Kurtis Blow, Whodini. Jermaine Dupri was ten years old on tour with us with a Jheri curl, and LL Cool J was 15 or 16 years old… That’s what I did: straight commercial hip-hop. You paid me, I danced,” said Harris in CAMD.

After that chapter of his career, Harris started Puremovement in 1992. Since then, Harris has been participating in various outreach and hip-hop education endeavors.

“People were walking out of my shows crying and I had no idea why they were crying. I did a piece on molestation because I was molested and raped when I was six years old. After that piece, men just walked up to me and hugged me, and people looked at me and just nodded their head. I knew I had begun affecting people’s lives using this vocabulary I have, which is hip-hop. I use hip-hop as a mode to tell my story,” said Harris.

The first half of the evening performance was a series of several dances called “Something To Do With Love.” The piece started with the dancers walking across the stage, using their bodies and facial expressions to depict flirting, setting the romantic tone of the piece. The music started out as smooth instrumentals, but shifted into pulsing beats once the dancing began. The fast-paced music, coupled with dramatic arm movements, gave the piece an infectious energy.

An excerpt of one of Puremovement’s most iconic pieces, “Rome and Jewels,” was also performed. The piece features monologues spoken by Rodney Mason, one of the company members.

“It turned out that Rodney Mason, who lived in the hood of all hoods in Philadelphia, was an avid reader of Shakespeare’s work. So one day he walked into rehearsal and said, ‘Yo, Tybalt, thou art the villain, so what’s up?’ And I turned and looked and my mind went ‘Bing!’ So I started to write the script as a sort of shifting of Shakespeare’s work,” said Harris during the Q&A.

The show ended with each company member performing a solo while the others surrounded them in a circle. Each dancer’s brightly colored clothing and individual charisma in each step made the section highly personal. One particular dancer, nicknamed Cricket, wowed the audience with headstands and high jumps.

“The show definitely changed my perception of hip-hop and its culture. It revealed the true roots of the art, which are a sense of community and love, that are not brought into light by the media. The dance numbers and themes were very authentic, and I believe that is the true nature of hip-hop, but that nature isn’t widely depicted,” said Avery Jonas ’16.